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Choosing a new Student Information System






Skyward Best Practices: A step-by-step guide to help your district effectively prepare for and manage the process of selecting a new Student Information System (SIS).



Deciding to choose a new SIS for your district will initiate a complex and lengthy process, but the result can have a major impact on improving student achievement and reducing costs.

Below is a typical workflow to facilitate the process of choosing a new system.

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The usual timeframe for the entire process is 12 months, with vendor evaluation and implementation planning ranging from 3-8 months depending on how the decision timeframe intersects with the preferred go-live date (such as start of a school year). Below are two example timeframes:

• A traditional timeframe with substantive time early in the schedule for a thorough evaluation.
• An expedited timeframe that may be required due to external factors.

In both scenarios, a minimum of eight months is recommended to ensure an adequate evaluation of your district’s needs.

 

Traditional Timeframe

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Expedited Timeframe

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If necessary, the process can be condensed even further, however, doing so places a much greater strain on your staff and resources, which can result in creating a negative impression of the chosen SIS among your stakeholders.

As you begin the formal process of evaluating solutions, create an evaluation committee that will be tasked to contribute to the process. The committee should include a diverse group of members that represent all staff, building, process, and technical areas. Key qualities for the individuals selected are that they are open-minded to change and able to contribute to other areas outside their expertise.

Along with the core evaluation committee, you may also choose to include subject matter experts (SMEs) to provide feedback on specific, mission critical areas. SMEs should provide written feedback and they should not rank applications. All written feedback should be provided to core committee members to help in their evaluation process.

One of the most crucial steps in moving to a new SIS is to account not only for your current needs, but anticipated future needs as well.

Once the time frame is established, the process will progress through the following key stages:

• Identify Needs
• Initial Evaluation
• Final Evaluation
• Decision and Contract
• Implementation Planning
• Training and Data Migration
• Go Live

 

Identify Needs

One of the most crucial steps in moving to a new SIS is to account not only for your current needs, but anticipated future needs as well. This is extremely important for technology-related initiatives such as: 1:1, BYOD, flipped classrooms, and virtual instruction.

These steps will help you identify needs and engage your staff in the process, which will positively impact the selection and implementation phases by creating greater buy-in.

• Request copies of RFPs from districts that have recently selected a new SIS (ensure they are not protected if the districts utilized a consultant).

• Select elements that align with your district’s individual needs and purchasing rules. Make sure to collect copies from multiple districts that chose competing solutions to ensure broader coverage and impartiality.

• Distribute functionality requirements by department and have each department leader submit a refined selection of requirements including needs not covered in the original list. It is important to have department leaders provide a weighted value to each item, typically using a five-point scale (5 = must have, 1 = not critical). Request a short time frame for response, as it will increase the urgency and accuracy of submissions.

• Identify technology requirements to compare on-premise solutions to a cloud-based approach. This will assist in determining overall cost. Ensure the cloud-based approach meets your district’s security and privacy standards for student data. More information on security requirements can be found at www.skyward.com/protectyourdata.

• After refining the RFP and functional requirements to your district standards, remember to remove items from the RFP that do not apply to your district.

• Once you are prepared to distribute the RFP to vendors, double check the timelines to ensure they provide adequate time for vendor response and district review.

 

Initial Evaluation

The initial evaluation phase encompasses three elements: Review of the RFP responses, product reviews, and final round selection. This phase will encompass the greatest amount of work and, at times, the greatest amount of uncertainty, as initial comparison of products may appear very similar.

RFP review

During the RFP review process, the comparison of vendors will involve considerable work to identify how each vendor meets your requirements. This process will be easier if you evaluate each requirement area by priority ranking, as discussed in the last section. For example, look at requirements first by highest priority and see how they align with the vendor’s proposal. Continue with the next highest priority group and so on.

This provides much greater insight than just comparing totals by requirements overall, as a vendor may do extremely well with lower priority items but miss a few of your highest priorities. By using this grouping approach, you will have more information to compare vendors without inundating yourself with minutiae. Along with functional requirements, it is extremely important to evaluate the other aspects of the vendor, including:

• Experience in the industry, local service, and most importantly success in meeting your mandated state reporting.
Detailed, thorough training services to ensure your staff will be efficiently trained and proficient in the application upon implementation.

• Make sure to evaluate online versus onsite training options from both a cost and acceptance perspective depending on your staff’s preferred learning approach.

• Completion of Data Migration Services—including how much historical data and the depth of data that will be converted. Include in this evaluation process what data will be migrated by the vendor versus what is the responsibility of the district to manually convert.

• Reference checks should be performed initially with phone calls to verify the substance of the vendor’s proposal. For example, verifying the training costs by confirming the vendor was able to complete all necessary training within the proposed time frame, or if additional training was needed to be purchased.

Upon completion of the RFP review process, identify the three to five vendors that best meet your overall requirements. Make sure to include non-functional expectations such as experience in successfully submitting state reporting requirements and implementation services, before moving on to the next step of product review.
 

Product review

One of the most exciting stages in the evaluation process, Product Review allows district personnel to see the latest developments in applications that can help your district. This phase focuses on evaluating the vendor solutions, but it should also include a learning process to identify workflows and functionality that can help your district improve. It is important that stakeholders recognize that district operations and procedures may need to change to take full advantage of a new solution.

During the product evaluations, create a simple scorecard to evaluate the vendors. Create these scorecards with a scoring matrix by general area and encourage strong written feedback by selection committees; this will provide a much better insight later, after all vendor presentations have been completed.

A common approach to managing the presentation portion of the evaluation stage is to dictate specific step-by-step, or scripted, presentations by each vendor. This makes sense initially to keep the process fair, however, this severely limits the district’s ability to make the most informed decision. Allowing the vendors to present new ways you can improve workflows as well as what emerging functionality is possible will ensure you are fully utilizing your new SIS.

Consider blending the two aforementioned approaches. Begin each section with required points vendors must present including key requirements and standard workflow processes your district needs. After these core functional requirements are completed, include an equal amount of time for the vendor to present functionality at their discretion. It is all too common to see districts provide a scripted demo requirement that is based on the functionality of their current system that would be eliminated by a new solution.

Depending on the scope, requirements, and any follow-up or questions, the product evaluation phase could involve multiple presentations. Additionally, a deeper analysis of each vendor via reference checks should be performed to validate information presented during the presentation phase(s) along with any additional questions that may have arisen.
 
Whether the presentation is online or on-site, this stage will reinforce your decision and bring to light additional items that require clarification.


Final Evaluation

After completing the initial evaluation, bring the core committee back together to complete a final review of results based on RFP responses, product presentations, and reference checks. If a single vendor is not clearly identified based on the evaluation criteria, you may choose to select two vendors to complete the final evaluation process. During this stage, focus on key functions that include student and parent engagement, along with complex processes that require the highest staff resources in your current system.

The importance of this final evaluation is two-fold:

• It ensures heavy workload requirements will be efficiently met while achieving a more in-depth understanding of how the SIS operates. In turn, you are able to identify new workflow processes that will aid in a smooth transition to your selected vendor.

• It validates the consistency and commitment of the vendor to meet your needs. Whether the presentation is online or on-site, this stage will reinforce your decision and bring to light additional items that require clarification before moving into the decision and contract stages.

 

Decision and Contract

Historically, the decision stage is relatively easy following the intensive efforts of the initial and final evaluations. When moving into this stage, start by identifying any specific product needs that are desired. During this phase, you can negotiate for possible inclusion of these needs or - at a minimum - learn where this functionality falls on the vendor’s product road map.

The initial evaluation phase encompasses the greatest amount of work and, at times, the greatest amount of uncertainty, as solutions may appear very similar. The contract, on the other hand, is driven heavily by district requirements on how contracts are managed. It can also be impacted by how the vendor manages their negotiations, which can range from internal executives and/or legal team to outside legal representation.

While you complete this process it is important to provide your district legal protection as defined by district standards, while maintaining the urgency of finalizing the contract with all involved parties to ensure it does not delay or hinder the implementation phases.

 
Rest assured, the efforts your team has made during the planning and implementation stages will go a long way toward a successful launch.


Implementation Planning

Just as the initial evaluation stage is important to making the best decision for your district, the implementation and planning phase is what will ultimately dictate the success and acceptance of a new solution across your district. You will achieve the highest level of success by having the proper team in place within the district, along with a proven, professional team from the vendor, to ensure mutually agreed upon milestones are completed.

Partnering with a vendor that has strong implementation services will bring an extremely valuable resource into your district and provide confidence that the deployment of the new solution will be successful. Just as you are the expert in educating students, the vendor you select should show a proven record of successful past implementations. Capitalize on their expertise to ensure a smooth transition.

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Planning should include project milestones leading up to the go-live date, as well as key milestones following the go-live date; trackingthese critical deadlines will be the key to a successful implementation. Other items to ensure success include:

• Dedicated project manager with weekly meetings
• Well documented action plans to ensure all tasks are completed on time
• Identified milestones to quantify a successful implementation
• Continuous reviews of staff and plans

A well-documented implementation plan combined with a dedicated vendor staff with a proven track record in training and data migration, will significantly increase your district’s chances of achieving a successful implementation.  

One other characteristic that consistently drives a successful implementation is identifying a project manager within the district to coordinate with the vendor. Usually this is common practice, but one crucial aspect is giving proper authority to this individual. This ensures other district staff will respond appropriately to assigned tasks and meet established deadlines. By providing this authority, the district will work collectively to accomplish a successful implementation.

 

Training and Data Migration

Following presentations, district staff are usually very optimistic about a new solution. However, between that phase and the training, staff will typically become anxious about the implementation process. Initial staff training sessions are crucial to alleviating that anxiousness and reviving the excitement that existed following the presentations.

Successful training includes the following:

• A defined plan that segregates training components by staff roles and responsibilities.
• Training schedules that are in sequence with applicable staff use of each area of the SIS. Avoid over-training or training out of sequence, as personnel will feel overwhelmed and/or fail to retain knowledge.
• Evaluations of all training, including the trainer and trainees, to gather feedback from the vendor on staff development.

The second key component during the implementation phase is data migration. One of the most difficult aspects of transitioning to a new solution is migrating the historical student information. There is always a focus on key data such as grades and attendance to ensure transcripts can be generated and state reporting is maintained. Beyond that, establishing a strong data migration plan for information outside the core data will provide you greater learning analytics from the beginning and will make a greater impact on educational initiatives.

Consider the following to ensure successful data migration:

• Vendor-provided services ensure greater accuracy.
• Request a preliminary data conversion to validate the migration process.
• Identify any unique data fields or special circumstances early, to make sure it is either included in the migration or allows ample time to prepare for an alternative solution.
• Complete a thorough review of converted data, including clean-up processes, to improve data integrity and accuracy.

 

Go-Live

When the big day finally arrives, it will be filled with excitement and anxiety. Rest assured, the efforts your team has made during the planning and implementation stages will go a long way toward a successful launch.

The initial rollout will undoubtedly include a couple hiccups due to the large scope of the project, but having an internal project manager and a dedicated vendor team will aid the district in quickly overcoming any issues and ensure a successful transition.

Although it may feel like you have reached the capstone of the implementation by completing the go-live stage, it is important to incrementally evaluate staff acceptance and knowledge of the product. These evaluations will allow you to identify any additional training or services needed that will help your district with continued success of the implementation. Additional training should be a service the vendor included in their initial proposal.

Lastly, take advantage of vendor-provided learning opportunities, such as: online tools, webinars, and user group conferences. The vendor you’ve selected should continuously be evolving and at the forefront of industry standards in education management.

 

Follow-Up Resource: SMOOTH Implementation Plan 

Skyward has always held the opinion that the single most important factor in large-scale technology initiatives is effective planning and implementation. Learn more about our SMOOTH implementation process today. 


 


 
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